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rules of improv


I was watching the show Celebrity Apprentice last week (artificially created, overly dramatic reality tv, I know, but it has its moments) and on that particular episode the teams had to perform in an improv puppet show (for adults) with members of The Jim Henson Company.  Interesting stuff.  The cameras followed the team through puppet-making, improv lessons, and learning how to be part of a live show.  Of course, the most fascinating part for me was seeing professionals (and amateurs) do improvisational theatre.

The rules of improv are pretty simple.  Don't think up a scene ahead of time; instead, be in the moment and react to what is happening.  You don't have to be funny; place the emphasis on creating an interesting scene and a consistent character; funny will follow.  Be specific and avoid open-ended questions which add nothing; vague questions end up putting the burden on your team members to carry the scene.  Make your team members look good; this invariably makes the whole scene better.  But the NUMBER ONE RULE in improv is the rule of YES (and).  Basically, it means that you never deny any situation or information that comes your way.  Your response is always "YES, and....."  After you accept the situation, you add more information to it and build the scene. 

For example, if a fellow actor says, "Your shirt is ugly," your first instinct might be to deny it by saying, "No, it isn't.  I think it looks fine!"  But if you follow the first rule of improv, you might respond with "Yes, I know.  I lost my luggage when I landed in Vegas last night so I pulled this out of the lost and found box at the hotel's front desk."  Which story sounds more interesting?  The Yes scenario or the No scenario?  Denying the situation suggested by the audience or contradicting what your fellow players bring to the scene not only shows disrespect for their ideas, but it brings confusion, undermines the integrity of the story, and most importantly, erodes trust.

Some of my reading this past term has been on the theodramatic theory of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Basically, he uses the model of drama as a way of explaining and illuminating the story of God engages with the world.  In many ways, the rules of improv are very applicable here, especially the rule of YES. Balthasar positions our YES in the context of divine freedom: “Only after God has uttered his absolute Yes to man can man utter his absolute No to God: genuine atheism is a post-Christian phenomenon.  This wide range in freedom, from a full human Yes and (at least the intention of) a full No, brings the tension of theo-drama to its peak." [1]  In effect, Balthasar is saying that our freedom to say Yes or No is a result of God's free choice to say Yes to us.  God is the ultimate improv artist! When we say Yes it means that we want to engage in his story.  Yes is a response that demonstrates trust.  Yes means I am a team player.  Yes is the only way to move the scene (my life) forward in a cohesive way.  Yes means I am committed to being a responder instead of pushing my own agenda. Yes means I have not pre-written my life's script, but am willing to take what is given to me and make something out of it. Yes means that I am the invited, not the author.  

But don't forget the "and!"  After the Yes, I am free to add what my character naturally brings to the story. It is necessary and integral to history that I add my "and."  It determines the specifics of how the larger story will proceed.  It is what can make a whole scene come alive.  It is life in the beautiful here and now, this moment.   

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theo-Drama, volume 2.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 123-24.

the photo:  me posing in a cutout at the movie theatre.  I denied this guy.

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Thank you for sharing
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